If David Sullivan was playing mind games with West Ham United’s players when he criticised their salaries and questioned their manager’s style, then he gambled and won, writes Alyson Rudd in this morning's Times. The team’s 2-0 Barclays Premier League victory over Birmingham City was notable for the emotion generated by the players and their clear support for Gianfranco Zola after the West Ham co-chairman’s scathing assessments. It is clear, reports the Guardian's Paul Doyle, where their allegiances will lie if discord between him and the club's new regime develops into a major split.
Zola and Sullivan clashed very publicly this week when the Italian expressed dismay over the co-owner's decision to announce swingeing pay cuts before Wednesday's crucial encounter at Upton Park. Sullivan had also cast doubt on Zola's ability to succeed as a manager, comparing him to the former Tottenham Hotspur manager Ossie Ardiles, who was deemed a failure, and suggesting he was "too nice" to take tough decisions. Though Sullivan subsequently declared that he was "100%" behind Zola and that the Italian was not in imminent danger of being dismissed, a feeling persists that West Ham's new regime is contemplating replacing him in a bid to ensure Premier League survival.
Certainly Scott Parker, the pulsing heartbeat of the team, believes it is plausible that Sullivan was toying with the team. He revealed that Zola had indeed spoken to his squad about Sullivan's comments before the Birmingham game. "He let us know his feelings," Parker said. "[Sullivan] knows the situation and if he feels it's best to say what he's saying, that's it. Sometimes people say things to get a reaction, you could look at it as reverse psychology. But I don't know if it was that." He also warned that West Ham must continue to improve if they are to remain clear of the relegation zone, and admitted that, irrespective of the manager, sometimes the players are too nice. "You know what you get from us: we're a good passing side, we're pretty," he said . "But we've got to do the dirty stuff, the ugly stuff to build a platform."
On Wednesday West Ham's players were motivated to do that ugly stuff as they put forward a strong case for Zola by producing a tenacious display to pull a point clear of the relegation zone. The Italian midfielder Alessandro Diamanti scored the first goal and celebrated, pointedly, by charging to hug his compatriot on the sidelines. Most of his team-mates did likewise. "We are all behind the boss," Diamanti said. "He works very hard and is a top guy and is always the one who takes responsibility when we don't play well. He is always there for us, always encouraging us and always on our side. We don't forget this, so I was extremely pleased to win and when I scored, my first thought was for the boss." Diamanti was the catalyst for the success when Parker's mazy run was brought to an end with the foul by Scott Dann. Both Diamanti and Mido wanted to take the free-kick but the goalscorer would not be denied. "I was ready to cut off his hands if he had tried to pick up the ball," said Diamanti. "We had so much will to win this game," he added. "We had been trying hard to win the last few games. It didn't happen but there was so much anger in the team to win this one."
Zola appreciated the gesture by Diamanti but insists his players were not sending a defiant message to the club's new co-owners as they mobbed the Italian coach. Instead, he was anxious to draw a line under his spat with David Sullivan and while he 'appreciated' the gesture, the Italian was adamant there was nothing sinister in it. "It was just a celebration because we are going through a difficult moment and we want to stick together, there was no other message than we are together - the players and the staff," stated Zola. "We want the team to succeed. We are in a position we don't like and want to improve it and that's the way I took it. We care about this club and want to be successful. It was a good gesture and I appreciated it. It means we are all going in the same direction and it is vital to do well. The important thing is that we won the game. It is important we win games and win well and that we are a unit. That is the most important message we send to everybody. It is the end of the story. I am motivated and driven to do well for this team and that is the most important thing."
Whatever additional drama West Ham conjure up between now and May, Zola knows unequivocally he can rely on his players for the long battle against relegation, writes Frank Wiechula in the Express. Diamanti’s magical first goal, and the spontaneous display of exuberance and affection as the players leapt on Zola, said everything any owner ever needed to know about what his team feel about the manager and their spirit. No amount of discussion on prospective collective pay cuts, or financial Armageddon, or whether nice guys can win, could have elicited that passionate, genuine reaction. Money can’t buy you love.
Man-of-the-match Parker is no stranger to the real-life soap opera that is a Premier League football club. Skipper Parker summed up the collective mood after a priceless win which took these EastEnders out of the bottom three and could have such a significant bearing on their final 13 matches. "The celebration? It was such a relief," he said. "We needed to be the first to score – it was crucial. Everyone has massive respect for the manager and we’re all pushing in the same direction. Nothing was planned, it was just the emotion coming out. There was no message, we just want him to do well, he’s a good man." Midfielder Parker, again inspirational against Birmingham, added: "We had a bad result at Burnley in the previous match. The rest of it – what’s happened over the last few days – is just the way West Ham are. As a player you have to be thick-skinned and remember your job is to win matches. We’re going to receive criticism because of our league position and rightly so. We shouldn’t be where we are. We need to take it on the chin and keep getting results. We’ve been unlucky but how many times can you say that? We’ve got the squad, so we should be pushing up the league."
The obvious exception to Sullivan’s rule about player wages needing a trim is Mido, who is on a basic salary of £1,000 per week. "We are fully behind the manager," the Egypt striker said. "I haven’t fought long for him, but I can see how everyone loves him around the place. He’s a great character and the players wanted to fight for him." Mido, whose work ethic was often questioned during previous spells at Tottenham, Wigan and Middlesbrough, said that such talk is unfair, and that he is determined to succeed at West Ham beyond his current three-month loan deal. "I've never had a problem with my attitude. I have moved around a lot of clubs, that's why this reputation came to me. But everywhere I've been I've worked hard in every training session, every game," he said. "Look at Robbie Keane, he's had so many clubs. Some players accept not playing and still getting paid. I'm not one of them. Hopefully this will be my last club. The last week I've been here I've been happy and hopefully at the end of the three months I will be here longer."
David Gold described the victory over Birmingham, the club he previously owned, as "a quite surreal but an amazing experience" now that he helps to run the side he supported as a youngster. "Very few people experience that in their lives," he said. "One minute you are rooting for the club you have been involved with for 17 years and then a few months later you are rooting back for your old team. It is extremely unusual but it has been an amazing experience and it feels great. You talk about the fear with the fans and that has been one of the big problems. The fans, players and management are nervous. Everybody is nervous and it is really hard to handle. What changes it completely is that victory."
And for his part, David Sullivan has told West Ham's players: "If you don't like me, I don't care". In today's Sun, the Hammers' co-owner insists his outburst at the squad this week was just mind games, designed to dig the club out of trouble. "It was the last resort," he said. "I had to say something to galvanise people into action because our results and displays just hadn't been good enough. There's still a lot of hard work to do but I'm really pleased with the way the team has responded. If it was so the players could stick two fingers up at me on behalf of the manager then great. At least it means we'll keep winning. It's dangerous but then the situation at West Ham is dangerous too. I've been accused of bad timing but I believe it was the best possible timing because look at the response it got. Whether that's totally down to what I said we'll never know - and the manager and players deserve lots of credit for the way they played. But laying things on the line is a tactic I've used before. I did it in the last game of last season at Birmingham when they needed to beat Reading to get automatic promotion. It worked then and it seems to have worked again."
West Ham are £110million in debt and Sullivan and joint-owner David Gold must cut costs to keep the club afloat. After just one win in 24 games, the highly-paid players became a prime target. Sullivan maintains Zola has the backing of West Ham's hierarchy even though his character as a Premier League boss was questioned by his bosses. Sullivan added: "He is one of the nicest guys in football and the players need to remember that and start playing for him."
When Diamanti was asked how he would celebrate, he replied: "I’m from Tuscany, so I will drink some red wine." After the week he has had, Gianfranco Zola would surely say, ‘Salute’ to that.